Note: This transcript has not been proofread, and therefore its accuracy is not guaranteed.
Wright: Joseph Goldstein co-founded The Insight Meditation society in Barrie, Massachusetts in 1975 after studying Buddhism in Asia. He is the author of "The Experience of Insight," "Insight Meditation," and "One Dharma." I interviewed him in Barrie. Well first of all thanks for letting me intrude here. I guess the first question I want to ask you is what it's like to be you. What I mean by that is you know you're a you're a pretty serious Buddhist I mean there are a lot of people who meditate everyday and maybe read a little and so on but I gather you have really devoted a few decades of your life to pursuing enlightenment and liberation in the Buddhist sense of those terms and that's really a search for a fairly dramatic transformation, right? I mean it it it's the goal I gather is is is for your day to day experience to be very different from what it was before you set out on the quest and I'm just wondering how how you compare it to an ordinary person's experience -- of course you'd never been anybody else, but you were yourself before you before you became a Buddhist... How have you changed?
Joseph Goldstein: It's a little interesting because my path in a way has been backwards in the sense that after college studying philosophy I went into the Peace Corps in Thailand so I was just 21 when I went there. By the at the end of my two years in Thailand I was just sitting in the garden of a friend who was reading from a Tibetan text and conditions just happened to come together, my mind was really concentrated, there was a lot of clarity and awareness and just from listening to the text something happened. There was like a really transformative moment of understanding of insight of realization whatever you want to call it. And that was before I had done any extensive meditative practice. I had just begun sort of exploring so in some way my path has been catching up to that experience
Wright: To recapture that moment?
Joseph Goldstein: Not so much to recapture it but to develop the meditative skills which would all it to flower. So the real transformation of understanding began then rather than kind of going on a long path working up to a moment of transformation.
Joseph Goldstein: So it's just and this I think is a little bit unusual though not unique.
Joseph Goldstein: People do have these moments you know where all of sudden there's just a reality shift...
Joseph Goldstein: Where they see something differently.
Wright: Can you articulate it or is it in the nature of it that you can't articulate that insight?
Joseph Goldstein: I can articulate it a bit. It really had to do with the mind or the consciousness opening to I don't know what could be called the unmanifested of the unborn, that the metaphor the analogy that came to mind just afterwards was zero, was the mind opening to zero. If we think of all of our sense experience, all of our usual worldly experience as being in the world of numbers...
Joseph Goldstein: ... everything we see...
Wright: Quantifiable things...
Joseph Goldstein: Yes and everything, even our thoughts and emotions and so this was like opening to something beyond all of that. It was like opening to opening to zero and it just change and what that did it really illuminated the selfless nature of this mind body process and of course that's what Buddhism is all about. So then when I found the path of practice within the Buddhist context it was just that, the practice of that.
Wright: Ok and I take it it was a good feeling?
Joseph Goldstein: Well it was ...
Wright: Or was it just a true feeling?
Joseph Goldstein: It was a true feeling yes it was mostly a true feeling. At first it was I wouldn't say it was a good feeling at first it was it was an earthquake. I mean it was beyond...
Wright: And it felt like insight? Now you are seeing the truth.
Joseph Goldstein: Yes.
Wright: And the truth was that in some sense the sensory world is an illusion or something or is not quite the most fundamental thing?
Joseph Goldstein: That plus the sense that on the most fundamental level, experience does not refer back to an I.
Wright: Experience does not refer back to an I.
Joseph Goldstein: Right. I mean mostly we go through life with the sense of I'm thinking, I'm seeing, I'm hearing ....
Joseph Goldstein: I'm feeling... So all experience kind of comes back like that...
Joseph Goldstein: This was through that moment it was like experience became like this rather than this. It wasn't self-referential.
Wright: Ok. Now I see what you mean in that you kind of got there right away and then had to back up and try to get there again...
Joseph Goldstein: Not so much as get there again as kind of integrate it and let it let the implications of it develop because it's also that's that's I see that as the beginning not the end. It's not that all notions of self were uprooted or you know... there are a lot of old habit patterns that go very deep.
Joseph Goldstein: And so those kept emerging but my way of understanding them was radically changed.
Wright: Ok. The now for people who go about it the other way around, you start out with the years or months or whatever of discipline...
Joseph Goldstein: Yes.
Wright: .. that includes things like, well probably often in this interview I will say things not quite the way a Buddhist would say them, but things like the restraint of sensual indulgence and a kind of discipline and in fact I've got a ... you're not a Daoist you're a Buddhist but I've got a quote from the Dao
De Ching: "Ever desireless one can see the mystery. Ever desiring one sees the manifestations." Right? That's very Buddhist, right?
Joseph Goldstein: It's fair.
Wright: And the idea...
Joseph Goldstein: I like that.
Wright: What's that?
Joseph Goldstein: I like that.
Wright: Ok. You can use it. It's not mine
Wright: But the idea is that to the extent that we, well here's a metaphor that's in your own writing, I think in your book "One Dharma." Your new book, You talk, and here we're talking about the path of discipline that presumably would lead you to insight, but you talk about life as being kind of like driving along the highway and there are all these exits you feel like you'd like to take. It's like "Oh there's a McDonald's and there's a..." And part of the Buddhist practice is to not take all of the exits. Right? And to and in a way that's in ...the usual way it works is you start out with this kind of discipline and meditating and various other kinds of disciplines and slowly get to the actual insights of the sort that you are talking about. Now, I guess to get back to my original question, what in your everyday life what kind of exits do you not take that you would have taken 35 years ago or something or that most of us take? And also what kind of exits are still a challenge for you?
Joseph Goldstein: I think we have to just put that question into a slightly bigger context. First is understanding that within different Buddhist traditions...
Joseph Goldstein: ... they will have different takes on this. So there's not kind of a total uniformity of view. One important division to understand is that what I would as a lay person, living my life as a lay person is and would be very different than somebody who walks the path as a monk or a nun. So depending on the lifestyle one chooses, there are different levels of restraints that are appropriate. Even as a layperson -- so just kind of narrowing it down to my own situation -- it's very different when I'm on retreat and when I'm just living my life you know, involved in various things I'm involved in, and so the level of restraint when I'm on retreat will be much greater than when I'm not on retreat. So it's like it's like narrowing it down...
Wright: Care to name something you wouldn't do on retreat that you would do in real life?
Joseph Goldstein: Yes. On retreat I don't read spy books. Off retreat I do.
Wright: That is austere.
Joseph Goldstein: It is! That's a major major enunciation. A more ... I mostly am in silence on the retreat. Out of retreat obviously I am not.
Joseph Goldstein: Food is much more moderated. Things like that. There's just a basic, simplifying...
Wright: But even in the course of your everyday life as a lay person there are restraints you're trying to exercise as part of your practice.
Joseph Goldstein: Yes. I big one that I try to work with a lot, I think it's one that we all could work with, it's a very fertile field, is kind of restraint in speech.
Joseph Goldstein: Like the whole area of speech in a huge area in most of our lives. We talk a lot during the day. I think very it's not that often that we really make or understand that as a essential part of our spiritual path but the Buddha talk about it. I mean it's a key you know it's one step on the eight fold path.
Wright: Yes. In reading your book, this is one point where I came to see that as a very kind of radical practice, Buddhism, when you started talking about how kind of idle chatter being something you shouldn't induldge in. Now that's about half my life.
Joseph Goldstein: Yes yes yes.
Wright: And I'd hate to think that I had to part with it ... but this, you see a down side to kind of just mindless babble I guess.
Joseph Goldstein: Yes.
Wright: What is the downside to everyday ranges from gossip which has a kind of obviously negative side to just ...
Joseph Goldstein: Chit-chat.
Joseph Goldstein: Well let's approach it from the other side. I think one of the great joys of spiritual practice is that we begin to get an experiential appreciation and love of silence and silence not only verbal silence but silence of mind. When the mind actually quiets down because there's an inner, there's a quality of inner peace and relaxation and openness and ease and intimacy when the mind is not chattering all the time. So the restraint from that kind of speech actually is the beginning of that process of allowing the mind to quiet down. And that's not that's not that's not an austerity that's actually that's joy! You know we actually feel much better in a paradoxical kind of way, much more connected.
Wright: Well this is one of the irony of Buddhism. It seems like you are being asked to do a lot to not do a lot of things that are fun. And that would seem to be kind of a depressing prospect and also in a more kind of abstract level Buddhism has a depressing sound to it I mean the Buddha starts out by saying "Life is suffering" or something like that but the claim certainly is that ultimately this leads you to a kind of joy that most of us don't know, is that ...
Joseph Goldstein: Yes and not only, ultimately. I mean I think one of the things I think people experience when they come even on the beginning of their path you know and are beginning to practice first just seeing, becoming mindful of what's going on in their minds and actions and seeing for themselves -- this is not a question of believe this is you know the practice of awareness so people do see for themselves. Ok what actions of my speech or my body or my mind are causing suffering and which which actions actually make me happier. So it's not people might have a sense of it being this you know heavy enunciate giving up all fun but actually all that one is giving up is one's suffering. It's really a path of happiness. It's just that usually we're so caught up in our habit patterns we're not being that mindful so we're often doing the very things that cause us to suffer.
Joseph Goldstein: And the Buddha just pointed you know he was point out "Well, look at this."
Wright: Yes. Well maybe we should back up here. I was in your latest book "One Dharma" one thing you're you're trying to do is look at a number of different Buddhist traditions and look at how first of all they kind of come together in America, these are traditions that in Asia have for centuries been largely separate, as in Buddhism and how is it pronounced "Theravada"?
Joseph Goldstein: Theravada.
Wright: Theravada Buddhism and so on. They're now kind of America is becoming kind of a melting pot for these. The subtitle of your book is "the emerging Western Buddhism." And one thing you're trying to do here is see I gather to what extent you can come up with kind of a common denomination, to what extent can you harmonize these things. So with that in mind, if somebody gave you just like two sentences to characterize the essence of Buddhism generically, could you even do that?
Joseph Goldstein: The Buddha did.
Joseph Goldstein: He kind of summed up the whole thing in one sentence. He said, "Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as I or mine."
Joseph Goldstein: He said, "Whoever understands this has understood all the teachings." So all the teachings are an elaboration of seeing through the you say illusory nature or conceptual nature of self, of I, of ego. And all the teachings are just helping to facilitate seeing with that clarity.
Wright: Ok. Now at a moral level this translates into a kind of selflessness.
Joseph Goldstein: Yes.
Wright: You're supposed to not harm other things and if possible do good and not favor your own interests over other people's interests.
Joseph Goldstein: Right, which is not easy to do.
Wright: Oh, I've noticed. Not that I've spent much time trying but that's impression.
Joseph Goldstein: Yes.
Wright: And then at the everyday level even leaving aside your relations with other people it gets back to the kinds of things we were talking to clinging in the sense of of just desiring things intensely and focusing on the desire for things.
Joseph Goldstein: I think there's also I think there's a big difference you know in English the word "desire" means a lot of different things and so often we confuse some of those meanings. It can mean anything from just the motivation to do something. I have the desire to get enlightened or a desire to be more compassionate...
Joseph Goldstein: We also use the word "desire" sort of addiction, addictive desire where's there's really strong grasping and clinging. Grasping in the mind. Well those, even though we're using the same word, those mind states are completely different. So it's important actually to clarify the language because all of these words have been translated from the palayan sanskrit where there's more differentiation.
Wright: So it's not inherently bad to want something?
Joseph Goldstein: Not necessarily. It depends it depends the nature of the wanting.
Wright: What's the bad kind of wanting?
Joseph Goldstein: Well if there's grasping, if there's clinging to it.
Wright: If not getting it would just ruin your day.
Joseph Goldstein: Exactly. Or if getting it and holding on to it is another kind of grasping and why because if you hold to something that is in it's nature is changing you're going to suffer. It's not the experience of the the changing phenomenon that's problem it's the fact that we're holding on to something that in it's nature is not going to last. Just you know simple examples, we hold on to being young, we hold on to youth which you know in our culture is rampant. Well of course there's going to be suffering because the body is naturally aged. Even we hold on to health. It's not to say we don't take care of ourselves and do what we can to stay healthy. But if we are attached to it, then as the body gets sick, which it inevitably will, then we suffer. If we are not holding on then we do what do to take care but as the body goes through it's changes the mind is much more peaceful. This is part of it. So that that's the implication of not grasping. It doesn't mean pulling away from experience. It means not holding on.
Joseph Goldstein: And that's very different. In some way this could be clarified by the distinction of two words which often get confused. You know often people understand in Buddhism that there's a great value on detachment and that sounds a little grey. You know just to be detached from everything.
Joseph Goldstein: That's not what the teaching is about. The teaching is about non-attachment. Detachment implies a sense of withdrawal.
Wright: Withdrawal from?
Joseph Goldstein: From whatever.
Wright: Including joy, including...
Joseph Goldstein: Anything!
Joseph Goldstein: It's like a pulling away from. Non-attachment doesn't imply withdrawal it simply implies not holding on. So that's a very different experience, it's a very different mind-set. That's really what we're practicing.
Wright: What is about the pursuit of pleasure in the conventional way that makes it the road to unhappiness according to Buddhism?
Joseph Goldstein: First, I think it's important to again realize that the path for each of us as I said in the beginning will depend on the form that we engage in so what I'm saying will be different from monks and nuns and us as lay people. So to the pursuit of pleasure you know and pleasurable... that we all do that. Yes we all want to feel comfortable and be in nice surroundings. So I think there are two issues here. One is how addicted we are, how much our happiness depends on our fulfilling those sense desire or whether we simply enjoy them you know as they come without that strong addictive quality. But on a deeper level I think the Buddha's point at and which can be born out in our experience is that pleasure doesn't fulfill it's promise of happiness. And we get that bombarded by our culture, by media and by advertising. Get this, do this and you'll be fulfilled. And the Buddha is pointing out that even though in the moment it may be a pleasurable experience precisely because it all has the nature to change it's not going to provide the lasting happiness that we're really looking for. And this is not this is not some abstruse philosophic doctrine. We just know this from looking at our lives I mean how many ...
Wright: Gratification evaporates.
Joseph Goldstein: How many pleasurable experiences have you had in your life? Innumerable. And we all have.
Wright: How many lasted?
Joseph Goldstein: Yes. And we're left in the same position of always wanting another one.
Joseph Goldstein: You know there's a there's a funny little story... you know there's a teaching figure in the Sufi tradition called named Nasradeem and there are many there are many just teaching stories about him. So one day he's sitting in front of this big pile of chilli peppers, you know eating one after the other and his mouth is burning and his friends and disciples come up. "What are you doing? Why do you keep eating them?" And he says, "Well I keep waiting for a sweet one." You know. In a way that's what we're doing. We keep looking for the next hit of pleasure experience. Not that there's anything wrong in that moment of pleasant pleasant experience it's just not going to give what we're expecting from it.
Wright: Right. But I think what what some people what skeptics might say is "Okay. It's true. I get this thrill and there's kind of this crash and then I get another thrill and I get another crash and it averages out to zero." But the thrills are special, they're fun and the way a lot of people probably think about Buddhism is ok you don't get the crashes but you don't get the thrills. You're still averaging out to zero and it's just a question you like pizza or whether you like a roller coaster ride and and I know you there so there must be something that replaces and you kind of hinted at this but it's very hard for the rest of us to understand I guess. If you take away all the little not that you're taking away all the little pleasures of life but still if people no longer pursue so many intense pleasures and don't get as many intense pleasure what does Buddhism offer to replace that joy?
Joseph Goldstein: Well I think that there are two two aspects to your question. One is, it's not that we stop. Our life is always filled with pleasure and pain and neutral experience. So it's not that as one enters the spiritual path or the Buddhist path that all of a sudden we're withdrawing from the roller coaster experience. That's still happens, it's the nature of being alive. What we are withdrawing from is the illusion that the highs are going to provide a lasting kind of happiness. We still have the highs and the lows and we're open to it all but there's a much greater sense of just ease and equanimity with those changes. So that's one one aspect. It's not that experience stops happening. It goes on happening in just the same way but we're not it's not that addictive quality to it.
Joseph Goldstein: But on a deeper level one of the things we discover through a spiritual path is that there are much deeper and more fulfilling experiences of happiness and of joy as required then. I'll just give you a simple example. This is a very mundane mundane simple example. When I'm busy in my life and speaking with a lot of people and going to a lot of meetings and I go for a walk in the woods generally what happens, even though I am trying to be present in my body, my mind will be kind of rehashing things that have happened or my plans. And so my experience of walking in the woods is nice but it's also filled with a lot a lot of mental activity. When I go for a walk in the woods when I'm on retreat when my mind is really silent it's like entering a wonderland. I mean, the difference in the experience is so extraordinary because I'm really quiet, I'm really present, I am experiencing nuances, you know in the woods, in what I'm seeing and hearing and feeling and smelling. The sense of joy and completion is so much more profound than when I'm walking through the woods and my mind is you know just chattering away. So it's not that we're giving up something to kind of come to a kind of flat neutral space. We're actually giving up what prevents us from an extraordinary fullness of experience and there's it's remarkable because, and this is not some great spiritual attainment, I'm not talking about you know going off and spending 50 years in a cave in the mountains, it's just taking a little bit of time to retreat from the busy-ness of the world at times and to learn how to quiet the mind a bit and then it's like whole worlds open up.
Wright: And then on an everyday basis. I mean, you're meditating everyday right and ...
Joseph Goldstein: Yes. Yes.
Wright: So you're getting some of this...
Joseph Goldstein: Exactly exactly.
Wright: ... in the course of your everyday life.
Joseph Goldstein: Yes yes.
Wright: I gather I mean Buddhists, as a metaphysical matter, believe in free will at least in the sense that they believe that people are capable of true freedom. But there's and I guess this was in "One Dharma" that I read this, you were saying that still what most people think of as freedom is kind of backwards. Most people think that if they go around doing whatever they want that's a sign of freedom, to do what ever you want is to be free and you're saying that if you go around doing whatever you want in some sense that is addiction and the opposite of freedom.
Joseph Goldstein: Yes.
Wright: Is that ...
Joseph Goldstein: Yes.
Wright: What, so everyday, what are everyday examples of things that...
Joseph Goldstein: Simple. There are a million simple examples.
Joseph Goldstein: And one we talked about before in terms of right speech. In other words, the thought comes some some kind of judgmental thought comes up in the mind...
Joseph Goldstein: ...you know about somebody. Just a natural tendency would be, "Boy, that person's doing you know this or that," kind of expressing something about judgement. One definition of freedom, well the thought came to my mind and I'm free to do it, I'm free to say it.
Joseph Goldstein: But that's really just the playing out of a happy pattern that causes suffering and that through mindfulness you know if we could see that thought arising in mind before we express it and say "No, I don't have to do that."
Joseph Goldstein: ... and just let it so. The non-doing actually creates more inner peace. We see it with food. You know, how many times in the course of a day do we find our hand in the refrigerator before we even know how it got there. You know, just on an impulse you know to want to eat something. And again, there's nothing wrong with it. It's not that there's something bad about it it's just that we're playing out habituated patterns and there's no freedom in that.
Joseph Goldstein: That's really mechanical.
Wright: And also there's there's less truth in the perceptions it seems to me in in at least the following sense you know I've been kind of interested in evolutionary psychology and according to evolutionary psychology some some kinds of things people do naturally include the following: if you have a rival, if you're competing with someone for something, whether a job or a mate, you will naturally tend to derogate that person in your mind and your judgements of the person would be automatically negative and made bare no correspondence to that person at all...
Joseph Goldstein: Right, right.
Wright: Similarly, if you're waiting in line and you're just dying to get a hamburger at McDonald's or something and there's somebody kind of fiddling with their change, I mean you actually you're not just annoyed, you actually come to believe that that's a bad person. I mean you briefly want...
Joseph Goldstein: Yes yes yes yes...
Wright: ... harm to befall that person you know I mean... and and these are clearly kind of departures from an objective perspective...
Joseph Goldstein: Yes yes yes...
Wright: ... because you fiddle with your change so if that's person bad you know... I mean is that that's a big part of the idea right? Not just that it feels better to go around not not wanting so chronically and not competing so fiercely but that it's actually conducive to something closer to the truth...
Joseph Goldstein: Yes yes. You know one the literal translation of the word for the kind of meditation we do which in palayan you know sanscrit in palayan it's (()), the literal translation of the word is "seeing clearly." And so really you can see that the meditation we're practicing is seeing clearly meditation. It's not even particularly about achieving certain states, it's just to see things clearly and in the seeing we become aware of what creates suffering and we practice letting go of it and we see what creates more happiness and we practice cultivating it. It's so common sense.
Wright: Now now meditation is a big part of this. You know it's not just a question of accepting the philosophy in an abstract sense.
Joseph Goldstein: No.
Wright: Part of a big part of the practice is meditating. First of all, what's the what can people hope for in the course of the meditative experience itself? There's presumably something to look forward to, it usually doesn't come naturally to people at first. What is there to look forward to in the long run? And I mean during the meditation.
Joseph Goldstein: Right. There are, I think, two two two arenas you know of experience that people begin to to touch as they practice. And they ... they spiral around each other it's not that one comes first and then the other you know they intertwine. These areas of experience are deepening concentration and the stillness of mind which is itself very peaceful and the other is greater clarity, seeing clearly, so the development of insight. So, for example, something that's an insight that people have probably the first time they ever started meditating, so this is not something you have to wait for. It comes right away. One of the first insights is how often the mind wanders.
Wright: That's how far I've gotten.
Joseph Goldstein: That's big!
Wright: It wanders a lot.
Joseph Goldstein: It wanders a lot but most people if they've not spent any time looking at their minds don't know that. They don't know that about their minds and so the mind is busy wandering all the time but if you ask them you know "Does your mind wander?" "No. No. I know what I'm doing."
Joseph Goldstein: So that's big. That's not insignificant because out of that insight can come the urge the desire the motivation to see what it would be like not to have to the mind wander so much. So you know that gives a little energy to devote at least a little time to practice and as you do and this is where you begin to get a taste of the other experience the mind actually does quiet down for a short for a few moment or a minute or five minutes.
Wright: Now there are people who report absolute ecstasy through meditation. Is it realistic to hope for that?
Joseph Goldstein: Well, first it's important to understand that there are different kinds of meditation and some kinds of meditation have this vague goal of blissful states. Other kinds of meditation have as their goal wisdom.
Wright: And is the pasina, your tradition is...
Joseph Goldstein: The pasina is much more on the wisdom side.
Joseph Goldstein: But within Buddhism and again the blissful states generally come through the deepening of concentration when you're focusing on that aspect as opposed to the insight side. But as I said, these two intertwine with each other and even in the pasina in this tradition even though ecstasy or bliss is not the goal of it, at certain points along the path it gets very blissful. But that... the caution there within this within this teaching would be experience it but don't get attached to it because that's not the goal.
Wright: Should you not get addicted to meditation then?
Joseph Goldstein: No I mean you shouldn't get addicted to anything. Although the Buddha there is one discourse where he said the name the name of the discourse the title is "One Fortunate Attachment." You know, so he's acknowledging...
Wright: The only one I recommend.
Joseph Goldstein: Yes. As a way of going beyond even that...
Joseph Goldstein: But as a vehicle well used vehicle...
Wright: That's interesting. And I gather that there are I mean when you think of wisdom as a goal of meditation I think of for example the moral dimension you know, understanding I'm not really the most important person in the world... things like that. But then there's also insight of a kind of metaphysical kind almost which I think maybe you alluded to at the very beginning when you were talking about your epiphany. That too is sometimes part of meditation I mean in other words a sense of a deeper understanding into the essential nature of reality...
Joseph Goldstein: Yes yes yes yes very much I mean that that that's where it's leading. It's really going it's just leading right to the heart of understanding the nature of reality, experientially not theoretically and that's what I think distinguishes the meditative journey from a philosophic journey.
Wright: And and as a result is the insight of a sort that really ...
Joseph Goldstein: Is transformative?
Wright: Well well can you talk about it though? Can you articulate it?
Joseph Goldstein: Yes. I mean there's some very again there are some very simple examples although it also goes to very profound levels but on a simple level there's there's a huge difference between our knowing that everything is changing. I mean ... you go up to anybody and ask: "Do things change?" And everybody will say, "Yes."
Joseph Goldstein: But there's a big difference between the knowing of that intellectually and actually being in the moment to moment aware experience of things changing in terms of what's happening in the mind and the level of transformative understanding. On the conceptual level it doesn't have that much impact. It might have some.
Joseph Goldstein: On the when you're on the level of really seeing the change moment to moment, the mind is in a very different space.
Joseph Goldstein: So that's just a very simple example.
Wright: Well it must it you must be right because my reaction just intellectually to the doctrine of impermanence is... I don't consider that reassuring. I mean, Buddhists say, "Well this is this is going to make you feel better. Nothing lasts. Everything is in... including yourself." And my reaction is I don't think I'm happier than I was before you told me that so there must be there must be something about experiencing the truth of that in a kind of intuitive or literal way or something that makes it good news?
Joseph Goldstein: Yes yes yes yes... I ... you want...
Joseph Goldstein: I can tell you the news.
Wright: I'm ready for the good news.
Joseph Goldstein: The good news is ... the bad news is that things change. The good news is that when we're seeing it rather than just having the intellectual understanding of it, in the moment of seeing it, the mind is not grasping. The mind is not holding on and the mind of non-grasping is at peace. And so it's the insight into impermanence that actually brings us into a different place of experience so things are still happening and things are still changing but because we're no longer because we're seeing it we're no longer holding on then you just we're settling back and everything is still in the process of changing but there's no stress. There's no subtraction...
Wright: So truly truly deeply appreciating impermanence makes you indifferent to it or not depressed by it or...?
Joseph Goldstein: Yes I would say ... I wouldn't say indifferent to it I would say open to it. Yes. This is the truth of things and even experience some of the beauty of it. But the crux of the issue is not the impermanence of self but how we're relating to it. I mean the impermanence is a description of how things are happening...
Joseph Goldstein: Whether we suffer or not in that process depends on how we relate to that truth. Mostly people are not aware of it on a moment to moment experiential level and so on not relating to the truth of impermanence in a way that brings peace.
Wright: Ok. But you would accept that at some level to some extent you cannot really completely convey to me what you're saying in a sense. To some extent, by it's nature, it has to be experienced....
Joseph Goldstein: Yes. But but what I am suggesting is that it would take about two minutes for you to experience it.
Wright: Oh I beg to differ. I beg to differ. Now wait a second...
Joseph Goldstein: I'll give you an example of something you have experienced.
Joseph Goldstein: When you're listening to music you know you're in a really... you're mind is quiet, it's concentrated on the music. Is your mind grasping at any one particular note you know? Probably not.
Wright: Actually, different music is kind of different...
Joseph Goldstein: But you have at least had some experience of being in that space of openness where the music is just flowing the experience of the music is flowing...
Wright: Yes but there's parts of the song that feel really good and I want them to come you know?
Joseph Goldstein: Ok does the wanting them to come enhance your enjoyment of it when they're there?
Wright: That's a good question. It's hard to say because I've never let go of the wanting.
Joseph Goldstein: Ok. Well I'll suggest something even further that it may be that in the moment of wanting it to come you're missing the joy and the beauty of what's actually there in the moment because in those times of wanting you are not fully open to hearing what is present because the mind is engaged in wanting and so it's like you're closing off to what's here in anticipation for what's coming ...
Joseph Goldstein: ... and it doesn't... what's coming will come anyway and you will have that enjoyment.
Wright: That's true although the way it always seems like the degree of gratification you're getting when that note comes or something in some sense the way for that has been paved by your wanting by your anticipation. It's almost a release a release whose prerequisite was the tension of wanting.
Joseph Goldstein: Right. I would ...
Wright: I am living in a world of delusion. Clearly I have not attained enlightenment...
Joseph Goldstein: No I think what you're saying is a common experience.
Joseph Goldstein: But I think it would be worth just experimenting. Again, not as a question of belief but just in your own internal investigation of your experience. Just be watching your mind and really notice you know as you're listening to music or ... you know you're sitting by the side of a stream you're just watching watching the water flow by, if you're trying to kind of hold it in a certain way there's a contraction there's an energetic contraction in the trying to hold what in it's nature is changing. You know and there's tension involved in that. When we can relax and open and really be open to the flow of change without the holding without the wanting then we are just there in a really full way. Full of the whole flow of experience and that turns out to be a greater joy than the perceived pleasure of wanting wanting wanting and then it comes and then it's the release. You know which may have it's own level of pleasure. I'm just suggesting that there's a much more refined and deeper and more open and fuller kind of happiness because you're not then you're not then you're not then fighting with what's true you're not you're not relating you're not relating to what's true in a way that's not harmonizing with what's true.
Wright: Right. Now, can anyone get there? I mean, meditation certainly is one of the things that helps you get there. I've tried to meditate and haven't had what you would call great success. I know a lot a lot of meditation teachers will say don't talk about success and don't think of it as having a goal but still the fact is...
Joseph Goldstein: You want some feedback.
Wright: There is something... Right. Let's face it any you know ... there's a point to meditation and it's not to be exactly the same person you were before you started and it's not to just feel like you're sitting there daydreaming.
Joseph Goldstein: It's no different than learning any skill... to learn to play the piano to learn to ski, play tennis... you know, you sit down and you do it for 15 minutes every few days and you'll get a little familiar with what's going on but you're probably not gonna become a Wimbledon champion. It takes and that's why it is a discipline it really takes really devoting some period of time and it doesn't have to be going off to a cave but it has to be some regular sustained systematic practice and that's how the skill develops. And even though we may not all become you know Olympic athletes or great musicians still almost anybody who does devote themselves to any discipline will improve and will actually see and experience the benefits of the practice. That's why it's called meditation practice.
Joseph Goldstein: It needs practice.
Joseph Goldstein: Because the mind has been traded not to be not to be focused.
Wright: And does it need regular instruction? I mean is it really kind of hard to just sit down and do it yourself every day?
Joseph Goldstein: I think that it needs some initial instruction obviously just to have a clear sense of what you're doing and then I think periodic checking it. But I don't think it need I don't think it needs ...
Wright: You don't need to go to an ashram ...
Joseph Goldstein: Not necessarily you know I think one way of deepen practice kind of taking a few you know leaps in it is going on retreat for a period of time that's why you know ... people come for a weekend or for nine days or for two weeks and they really immerse themselves in it. It's like it's like immersion language traning or something. So then they come of that with a much deeper experience which they then carry back into their lives. So there are ways of doing it just by one's self for a while and then ways of you know strengthening it.
Wright: Ok. Now people I think a lot of American have a view of Buddhism as being almost a religion that's not really a religion. They think that you know Christians believe in God and everything, Buddhism is more a kind of a practice with a a moral dimension and maybe even some metaphyiscal belief but they don't thinl of it as being much beyond that now it's true right that in Asia there are a lot of practicing Buddhists who have a lot of kind of supernatural dimensions to their beliefs and in fact the whole the Buddha himself supposedly was what born out of the side of his mother or something which we know actual human biology does not permit. I mean there's all ... I don't know... in the several cases I'm familiar with it's not the way it has happened let me just say that. I mean is is is is the kind of emerging American Buddhism in some ways a sterilized Buddhism or or or a I mean a perfectly fine Buddhism but just a a different creature from what's going on in the real heartland of Buddhism.
Joseph Goldstein: Yes. I think it's important to say that both in Asia and now in this country, Buddhism covers a wide spectrum of practices of beliefs so it's not just it's not just one thing in some on one end of the spectrum there's tremendous kind of devotional practices you know and that would look more like a Western religion even though the metaphysics is probably somewhat different but it would look more like ...
Wright: Well they even pray right?
Joseph Goldstein: Yes.
Wright: Some of them pray.
Joseph Goldstein: Yes.
Wright: And presumably they are praying to something.
Joseph Goldstein: Yes. Yes. There are other either schools of Buddhism or lineages within the traditions which focus more on the meditative aspects... so there's just this range like in the West there's also a level of popular belief and the level of I don't know if I would say a deeper understanding of what the teachings actually are and when we say Buddhism we're really talking about both of those levels just as in Christianity and Judaism yes there's a popular ... I'll just give you an example I just came back from a Buddhist-Christian conference at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucy where Thomas Martin had lived. And it was really interesting in hearing the Christian way of talking about God many levels you know and often it was in every personal dualistic language you know we here and God is there and we pray to God. But many of the conversations brought it to another whole level from the Christian side, the Christian theologians, of God not being a being. But you don't hear that normally in popular Christianity. And so I think in every religion there are different levels of understanding it and it's the same and that's what true in Asia.
Wright: Right. But is it the case that some of the more mystical Christians or maybe some of the more theologically abstract Christians like Paul Tillich talks about God as the ground of being or something. Is it... do you see real resonances between Buddhism and....
Joseph Goldstein: I think there's more I think on that level there's much more resonance. I mean I haven't explored it deeply enough to know there's an absolute unit of understanding but the language begins to get more accessible in terms of you know relating experience.
Wright: And I've heard the idea of a kind of mystical union God the way a more mystically minded personal might put it, compared to the search for Nirvana. I've even heard Nirvana kind of compared to God.
Joseph Goldstein: Yes. I mean, on that level. You know. If one could one could begin to explore I mean there's enough there would be enough common language to explore, ok are we talking about the same thing or not?
Wright: Now one thing one supernatural doctrine is reincarnation which I gather all the main Buddhist traditions do take seriously right? Is that right or is that wrong?
Joseph Goldstein: Yes. This is just a kind of a clarification. Within Buddhism, reincarnation is not actually the word used. The word is rebirth and the difference is that reincarnation implies a kind of soul that gets reincarnated from life to life which is not a Buddhist understanding. The Buddhist understanding is that there's no being which goes from one life to the next but rather there's a continuity of process and so in Buddhism it's called the process of becoming. This becomes this become this becomes this depending on causes and conditions. There's no there's no central core which is carried.
Joseph Goldstein: So that's an important distinction on the on the philosophical level.
Wright: It has to do with the very nature of the self and Buddhists ...
Joseph Goldstein: Yes yes ...
Wright: But the ...
Joseph Goldstein: But the idea of rebirth and and many lives is certainly common to all the Buddhist traditions.
Wright: Ok and what strikes me as odd is so there is in that sense a notion of an afterlife in Buddhism but in in in Western the Western tradition the afterlife is is the good new that you know... whereas in Buddhism the object of the game as I understand it is to end the afterlife because when you attain true enlightenment then you will not be born again. Right?
Joseph Goldstein: Again different different Buddhist traditions emphasize different aspects so for example in the Theravada tradition what you said is quite accurate and it's really the attainment of full enlightenment is the stopping of cycle of birth and death into the reality of Nirvana, the unconditioned, whatever that whatever that experience turns out to be. Or whatever that non-experience...
Joseph Goldstein: ... turns out to be.
Wright: In fact doesn't Nirvana mean extinction or is that wrong? Is that not the etymology?
Joseph Goldstein: There's been a lot of there's been a lot of debate about that.
Joseph Goldstein: And that's that's sometimes how it's translated. Another translation more current English translation is Nirvana as unbinding. So even just those two words in English have very different connotations. There so just know that there's a wide range of linguistic interpretation of that word.
Joseph Goldstein: But just to go back to the ... so within one tradition it is stepping off that cycle of birth and death within some of the Buddhist traditions, you know the whole Bodhisattva vehicle...
Joseph Goldstein: The intention is to awaken and to keep coming back in order to help awaken all others. So the motivation becomes very different.
Wright: Certainly you're you're Buddhism is not a theistic Buddhism.
Joseph Goldstein: No no.
Wright: So you don't get the kind of consolations that say Christians get from the idea that there's a benevolent God out there.
Joseph Goldstein: Well yea no there are there is the consolation because sort of when we take refuge you know this there's there's refuge in the Buddha, refuge in the Dharma, refuge in the ... that I would just kind of a community...
Wright: And the Dharma is?
Joseph Goldstein: The Dharma dharma is is a sanskrit word and it means truth, it means the way things are, it means the dao, the elements of experience, so very broad. So the consolation and and I feel that this is really the deepest source of consolation is that when we understand the truth, we live in harmony with it and that brings that brings about a deeper a deep sense of peace and it's based on experience. It's not based on a belief system.
Joseph Goldstein: And so... one could say it's really a harmonizing with the truth so if you wanted to define God as being truth, as being both relative absolute ultimate truth so that could be a bridge of understanding, you know not God as a being but God as truth to the most profound levels so then the practice is very much taking refuge in the truth.
Wright: And the idea then is that the truth is a good thing?
Joseph Goldstein: Yes because the truth is what it is. The good thing is when there's harmony with it.
Joseph Goldstein: Because then we're not rubbing up against what's true.
Joseph Goldstein: Whereas if ... the truth doesn't change whether we're aware of it or not aware of it.
Joseph Goldstein: It is as it is.
Wright: Yea. At the same time I'd think you'd say you're doing more than resigning yourself to say to impermanence for example. It it it's...
Joseph Goldstein: Not resigning. Resigning implies a kind of "Oh well..."
Wright: Yes. I mean there's something about about the discovery of the truth that's ...
Joseph Goldstein: Liberating.
Wright: Joyous. Right.
Joseph Goldstein: Absolutely. Although not always I mean some some a aspects and and you know in most spiritual traditions and including the (()) there are phases which do correspond to the dark night of the soul. You know... well you really go through some very difficult times as you're opening to the truth and you're seeing aspects of impermanence you know and the unsatisfying nature of impermanent conditions so it's not it's not the whole ride is not joyful but those stages are also not the end, they're what you go through in the process of learning not to hold on.
Wright: I guess in a way one question I'm kind of trying to get at and I'm curious about is would you say that there's a transcendent source of meaning in Buddhism?
Joseph Goldstein: Yes.
Wright: And how would you elaborate?
Joseph Goldstein: Well... I think that's what's referred to with a lot of different words and different traditions as being the unborn the unmanifest... the Dharma-Kaya... Nirvana... the unformed. You know it's that dimension the Buddha called that the debtless you know because it's not something which is born that then dies you know and just a lot of different words have been used.
Wright: So there's something beyond the physical world and it is a good thing.
Joseph Goldstein: Yes. Yes.
Joseph Goldstein: And it can be experienced. That's I think what's what's I don't know whether perhaps it's not unique to Buddhism, certainly characteristic of Buddhism, that it can be experienced now we don't have to wait till we die to experience it...
Joseph Goldstein: You know we can open to that...
Wright: Speaking of death... you don't offer the consolation of Heaven... I mean well Buddhists don't.
Joseph Goldstein: They do but it's a much more I mean in the Buddhist cosmology there are upper heaven worlds and lower worlds and in a relative way on the relative level the Buddha talked about you know by living in a good way in this life one's rebirth is in a happy plane of existence.
Joseph Goldstein: That's just not seen as the ultimate. That's seen as just further impermanent conditions but within the realms of birth and death there's definitely the sense that you can ...
Wright: Get an upgrade.
Joseph Goldstein: Yes. You get an upgrade. Exactly.
Wright: First class up grade.
Joseph Goldstein: Yes yes.
Wright: So if you're if you're if you're someone who is a practicing Buddhist but say you don't take the reincarnation part seriously and I bet there are a lot of American Buddhist who are very serious and diligent in their practice but don't buy that part... you're you're saying that the there is still enough in the teaching to kind of take the sting out of the inevitability of death...
Joseph Goldstein: Well ... one one aspect for people who don't kind of subscribe to that to that whole cosmology the essence of the teaching is really about just staying present so that you're really there in each moment so the teaching real is about in that whole process of dying not getting caught up in fear or in anticipation or but just okay moment to moment to moment can we relax some more can we stay in a place of peace and then whatever happens will happen.
Wright: But... it can't be good that things are going to quit happening generally.
Joseph Goldstein: It depends it depends I think I mean I'm just...
Wright: I mean I guess in a way it gets back to this doctrine of a self-less perspective is that part of the refuge?
Joseph Goldstein: Oh definitely. Definitely. Not only that but I know a lot of not a lot but you know a number of older people who who really just feel like they've developed a wisdom in their lives. And they're really not holding on they just see kind of the life-span you know the body gets weaker and the senses get weaker and the faculties get weaker and it's not seen like the the desperate holding on to life it's not necessarily seen as such a good thing you know that death is seen much more as a natural as part of the natural process and this is a great ease...
Wright: And actually the truth is, even if you do buy the reincarnation, I mean or rebirth or whatever I mean as I understand it the idea is that you might not necessarily remember who you had been...
Joseph Goldstein: Right.
Wright: ... so there would not be this continuity of consciousness anyway.
Joseph Goldstein: Or the or conscious remembrance...
Wright: Right so at a kind of practical level the doctrine of rebirth is kind of "What's the difference?" And in a way I guess you can be consoled by that in other words you could say well look I'm going to die but somewhere a realm of consciousness is going to come into being capable of everything I'm capable of and there will be joy in that life ... I don't know... does that...
Joseph Goldstein: Yes I think I think people deal with death...
Joseph Goldstein: ...in a lot of different ways but I think a lot of how they deal with it depends on how they understand who they are now. You know and just... Yes I think just depending on the level of wisdom you have about our own process now will determine how we feel about death and people have many different levels of understanding...
Wright: Ok. There's a chapter in your book called "Faith." And yet you're not you're not a theistic Buddhist so it's not faith they way a Christian thinks of faith it's faith in again the Dharma... so it's kind of faith in the diagnosis in the correctness of the Buddha's diagnosis it's kind of faith in a good doctor kind of...
Joseph Goldstein: Yes. That's a good way of saying it. And faith also in the in the actuality of the moment's experience. So it's not only it's not only something out there but you know we're sitting here and we hear the sound of the wind ... there's just kind of the settling back into the awareness of that sound for me there's a quality of faith in that it's just like an opening or an acceptance yes this is the truth of this moment. You know and so it's abiding in that....
Wright: You mean it's kind of a faith that that is always accessible to you? That that that that the present is always there to relax into?
Joseph Goldstein: Yes yes yes. And and it's it's very you expressed it well I mean there's just you know the mind can be caught up in all kinds of projections and fears and anxieties and you know lost in all that and then the remembrance oh yes I can just come back to the truth of experience in this moment and it is relaxing.
Wright: Now another another problem that a lot of religions address is evil. Now with Christianity it's a particular kind of problem, it's called the problem of evil because if there is really a benevolent omnipotent God you wouldn't expect evil to exist. Buddhist don't confront the problem in that form but people of all faiths ask why do bad things happen I guess and then how do you deal with them so how does how does Buddhism address the problem of evil in that sense?
Joseph Goldstein: I think for me the kind of Buddhist take on this is really helpful because the Buddhists see all evil actions as coming out of ignorance. It's because we don't understand the nature of the mind, we don't understand the law of karma ,that actions have consequences which will rebound to us and so people do harmful things. They're doing it in the search of happiness even though it can completely misguided but, why do people do things? Because they think in some way they'll be happier for it. And so the the problem and the addressing of the problem then is getting to the root of ignorance. It said that you know what what most motivated the Buddha to start teaching after his awakening was that he would see he kind of surveyed the world this higher wisdom and he saw people seeking happiness and yet out of ignorance doing the very things which brought suffering ... and of course we see that in ourselves and we see that in all you know in the world around us. It I think it's a much less it's a much less charged situation when we're looking looking at as a problem of ignorance then when we cast it as a problem of evil because evil that polarizes... and and evil is over there and I'm over here and I'm good and they're bad... And the polarity often just creates even more difficulty. If we can see it as a problem of ignorance then the question becomes "Ok, how can I help somebody awaken from this ignorance?" It doesn't that just does not imply a kind of wishy-washy you know ...
Joseph Goldstein: Either amorality or just sometimes very strong action is needed. I mean in the Buddhist texts the Buddha often you know he'd say "You fool! Why are you doing that?" And sometimes he would take pretty strong decisive action. But it's it was from that same coming out of that place of compassion for the ignorance not from a judgement ...
Joseph Goldstein: Yes so it's a very different it's a very different tone I think in the world today. It could be a very useful paradigm.
Wright: Although some people would say getting back to this very theme this very doubt about about how kind of staunchly moral Buddhism really is people some people would say and probably do that there's so much emphasis in Buddhism on non-judgement on not judging people as being...
Joseph Goldstein: Yes but non-judgement does not mean non-discernment. Non-judgement again and this is kind of a problem of language. When Buddhists say non-judgement it means are we caught in our own re-activity? That ... so being non-judgmental means not being caught in our own re-activity to the situation it doesn't mean that we don't discern what's wholesome from what's unwholesome what's good from bad or what's ... that discernment is a key element of the teaching.
Wright: Ok. So it's a ... non-judgement means not getting caught up in the heat of a kind of ...
Joseph Goldstein: Yes.
Joseph Goldstein: Yes.
Wright: ... judgement about what someone...
Joseph Goldstein: Yes.
Wright: ...has done.
Joseph Goldstein: Which often lead to self-righteousness and anger and hatred and ...
Joseph Goldstein: That that just that does not contribute but a discernment of what's what and what's skillful what's unskillful is essential.
Wright: Sometimes punishment is in order.
Joseph Goldstein: Yes. Absolutely. And response you know... if someone is going around murdering people, you don't just kind of say oh you know be happy, be happy!
Joseph Goldstein: You need to take appropriate action.
Wright: But you shouldn't take joy in the punishment either.
Joseph Goldstein: No, I mean not done out of hatred.
Wright: It's a regrettable necessity... kind of...
Joseph Goldstein: Or an or an yes or an appropriate... it's just appropriate to do but we don't we don't need to hate in that situation we just say yes this action has to stopped.
Wright: Ok. I guess my last question is just about Nirvana. I'm a little confused. Is that supposed to be accessible to a sufficiently devout Buddhist or if you actually attain Nirvana would it mean you're kind of weren't part of this world anymore weren't long for this world or something what is ...
Joseph Goldstein: This is a complex question for a variety of reasons. One is that different traditions of Buddhism have different interpretations of Nirvana...
Joseph Goldstein: ... so you have to ask in each tradition how do they hold it and how do they understand it. All traditions hold out the possibility that this is something that can be experienced now. This is not a let go... a post ... a post death. An experience. In some of the traditions the nature of Nirvana is the nature of awareness you could call it a wisdom awareness and so in those traditions one could be abiding in that in one's life. Other traditions see Nirvana as transcendental transcending this experience, transcending even awareness and so in those traditions the experience of Nirvana would be a temporary stepping out of the flow and then you kind of step back in and re-engage.
Wright: But it's blissful either way I hope.
Joseph Goldstein: Blissful but perhaps not in the way you think of blissful. I mean we tend to have limited notions of what of the possibilities of bliss...
Wright: So it's even better than I think?
Joseph Goldstein: It's even better than sex...
Wright: Great. Ok. Well then sign me up. I'll be coming to one of your retreats.
Joseph Goldstein: Maybe that's what we should kind of that should be the tag line on our brochures....
Wright: Better than sex. You could sell even more books that way possibly. Ok well thanks a lot.
Joseph Goldstein: You're welcome.